The Irish Government to prioritize securing a swift UK-EU Free Trade Agreement

Following the expected ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by the new Parliament in London and the European Parliament, almost immediately the issue of the longer-term trade and economic relationship will come into focus. The issues, which dogged the withdrawal discussions, will again re-emerge. This is especially true in relation to the Irish border.

It is important that the mistakes and ill-will which dominated this initial phase are not repeated in any forthcoming talks. In my recently-published Politeia paper, The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU: The Route to Frictionless Trade, I look at the difficulties facing the authorities in Brussels, London and Dublin on that Irish border issue and the range of possible options available to them.

In this context, longer-term solutions are needed which allow for the easy facilitation of trade while preserving the hard-won gains of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

There is also the issue of maintaining the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. Equally important is that any such longer-term solution should provide reassurances for both communities in Northern Ireland.

The difficulty is that many of the problems are essentially political in nature and require political will for a solution. For much of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiation that political will was missing, especially from Dublin. However, things may be changing.

For Ireland, the focus now must be on assisting in the completion of a future comprehensive UK-EU Free Trade Agreement which would be beneficial for all parties:
• A future UK-EU trade deal along the recent EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) could work well for Ireland
• It could also resolve the questions about maintaining the soft Irish border
• In such circumstances, the likelihood is that there will be a separate protocol on customs arrangements on the island of Ireland

Ireland should be striving for that type of beneficial outcome which could help restore the formerly excellent relations between Ireland and Britain.

There are strong economic reasons for Ireland to work with the UK to secure the best outcome for free trade, quite apart from its long and strong ties. By throwing itself wholeheartedly behind winning a comprehensive EU-UK Free Trade Deal, the Irish government could, at a stroke, have a UK-EU FTA, to Ireland’s economic benefit. It would, in doing so, underline the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, alleviate the need for current border checks and meet the concerns of Unionists and Nationalists alike.

The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar executed a number of radical U-turns that helped secure the Johnson/EU pact. He agreed to re-open the Theresa May Withdrawal Agreement, engaged in direct talks with Prime Minister Johnson on Merseyside and agreed to ditch the infamous backstop. These were actions which he had solemnly sworn never to undertake.

Varadkar changed position because of the real threat of a no-deal outcome which emerged once Prime Minister Johnson showed how serious he was about securing Brexit, with or without a deal. Varadkar was spared strong criticism at home by relief at the avoidance of No Deal and the strong reaction of the DUP, which helped bolster his position.

From the outset, the Irish border question was used by elements within the Remain camp to try and block the UK’s departure from the EU. It is certainly not in the long-term interest of Ireland to be used in this cynical manner. The issue will hopefully be solved to the satisfaction of all in the forthcoming free trade discussions.

Brexit has serious implications for Ireland. There is no other EU member state which is as economically, culturally, linguistically and geographically intertwined with the UK, as Ireland. Hence there is a need for the Irish Government to carefully manage the situation in its national interest. That was lacking in the past but may now be changing.

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